The cannon of the Castillo de San Marcos
A few days ago I made another visit to the Castillo de San Marcos. I led teachers, graduate students, American and foreign dignitaries, journalists, and videographers through the dry moat and into the 350-year-old castle. This time I was with two girls, ages 8 and 11.
Each type of visitor asks different questions, but usually not with the enthusiasm and candor of the two girls. They have been here several times with me and have their own plan of attack against the Castillo.
The “dungeon” in the northeast corner under the high watchtower is our first stop. I don’t recall any diplomats or other officials stooping through the very low opening of what was actually once an old gunpowder warehouse. Today the light in the “dungeon” is permanently on, but years ago Castillo’s staff would turn off the light and provide a chilling experience of total darkness in a small, damp, windowless room.
More from historian Susan Parker
Next, we had to check out the large San Carlos watchtower on the northeast bastion. Then the girls ran towards the cannon on the gun deck. Their interest was more in the decorative dolphins on the cannons than in the weapons themselves, and they quickly fled to another watchtower.
I stood looking at the cannon and remembered reading so many reports of how people living beyond St. Augustine settled in the city and “under the protection of the cannons of the Castillo” during the attack periods. I thought the guns in the fortress today were not the ones in place to defend the Castillo and this city from attacks centuries ago.
As St. Augustine and the Florida Colony were transferred between nations, the outgoing regime withdrew its own cannon. Sometimes the outgoing nation and the incoming nation disagreed over the fate of the artillery – which pieces should stay and which should go.
When Spain transferred its colony of East Florida to the United States in 1821, American and Spanish representatives disagreed on the fate of the Spanish artillery and archives. U.S. Commissioner Robert Butler told Spanish Governor Jose Coppinger that the transfer treaty signed by Spain and the United States provided for the handover of government archives, fortifications, and all cannons and artillery in the east from Florida. Coppinger replied “no”.
After offers and counter-offers, Butler and Coppinger compromised that the Spanish would leave the mounted artillery at Castillo de San Marcos and Fort Matanzas, “if the United States would transport the unplaced remainder, tubes, field pieces and the cannon of the gunboat”. Butler accepted the idea.
How do we know the details of the fight between Butler and Coppinger over artillery? We can read their communications because US officials have seized the Spanish archives of Coppinger’s headquarters. So the papers remained in the United States rather than being sent to Havana, Cuba.
Almost 40 years earlier, Florida’s cession involved Spain ceding its colony to Britain. British troops arrived in St. Augustine in mid-July 1763 while the town’s Spanish inhabitants—and artillery—awaited ships to take them to Havana.
The sloop Industry (or Industrias in Spanish documents) commanded by Captain Daniel Lawrence ferried the Spanish artillery away from our city. The ship then reversed its role and brought British guns here. On December 24, 1763, 58 residents left their homes in St. Augustine and sailed for Havana on Industrias. Guns from the Castillo also cruised the ship.
Five months later, in May 1764, Captain Lawrence and Industry approached St. Augustine bringing British guns into the town. The industry was shipwrecked on the approach to Saint-Augustin. The cannon sank to the bottom of the ocean, never reaching the gun deck of the Castillo de San Marcos.
I didn’t tell the girls that part of the story as we stood in the hot, bright sunshine with the chatter of other visitors surrounding us. But I will.
You can read about the sinking of the industry at St. Augustine Lighthouse Website.
Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.